WARNING: Rambling birding story ahead!
So there we were, cruising toward a fjord at the crack of god-awful, and we were all awake because we had crossed multiple time-zones and had boat-lag. And I was idly staring out the window with my bins and a spotted a gull and then there was this other bird behind the gull—a larger bird, with a clean white head and body, large chocolate brown wings, thick bill of some color (it’s surprisingly hard to tell sometimes with bill color, when all you get is a flash and the lighting is different than you’re used to—about all you can do is yell “Pinkish-yellowish-grayish-tannish!
It was bigger than the gull, but I didn’t know by how much, since distance is nearly impossible over water for me—we’ve got no real landmarks to go by, so relative distance gets REALLY hard.
There was a mew gull in front of it. The gull was smaller.
The unknown bird banked hard and fast, wings straight up and down, parallel to me, and then swept out of sight. My brain said “Shearwater??” but that was as far as I got.
Now, I had some good fieldmarks on this bird, but I had two big problems. First of all, I have no idea what’s up here. My Sibley app on the phone filters by state, but Alaska is a big state and there are things at the top that aren’t at the bottom, or a mile out from shore that aren’t three miles out, and vice versa. Lot of ground to cover.
Secondly, we are currently in the middle of summer, so there are lots of juveniles about, and juveniles can look like damn near anything. Many of them are speckled and spotted, which this one wasn’t, but young birds are weird.
I wandered over to my buddy Tina’s stateroom and said “Tina! Bright white head and body and dark brown solid wings! Bigger than a mew gull!”
“No idea,” she said.
I filed it under “will never know” and had breakfast. (You may think that this is giving up easy, but frankly, birders see a lot of birds that they just mark off as “no idea, can’t tell.” You abandon the need for absolute knowledge pretty early in this hobby. Seabirds are particularly bad.)
A few hours later, we were sitting staring out a window, on the open ocean, our brains fried by fjord and glacier and all that good stuff, and Tina said “White head and dark brown wings….was it was a duck?”
“I don’t think it was a duck.”
“Long-tailed ducks might fit that description…”
“It was pretty un-ducklike.”
Another hour or two passed, during which time we saw several excellent Tufted Puffins, which flap their little wings like lunatics just to stay in the air, and Cassin’s Auklets, which will eat too much fish to be able to fly and go floundering over the top of the waves like a small adorable softball.
“So this bird with the dark brown wings…”
“Definitely not a duck?”
“I have written it off as some strange juvenile gull, actually.”
“Was it speckled?”
“Not at all. Super clean white feathers. Super solid brown wings. Made me think of a shearwater. You know, it did the thing—the wing thing—it banked—” I attempted to demonstrate. Passing cruise-goers eyed me suspiciously, as I had apparently broken out doing the Robot, which was not on the cruise schedule until later that night.
Tina got a look that I would be hard-pressed to describe. “Was it big?”
“I have no idea. Distances out here…”
“Mmm, true. Nobody can do distance out here.”
“It was a lot bigger than a mew gull. Long wings.”
She began flipping through her Sibley and finally held up a picture. “Like this?”
“Hey, yeah! I think that’s him!”
“Laysan Albatross,” she said. “That is an awesome bird. Congratulations!”
“And we get those up here?”
“Yes. I will slip arsenic in your food tonight.”
“What? Why? What did I do?”
“Do you know how many pelagic trips I have taken trying to get a Laysan Albatross? Do you know how much pelagic trips COST?”
“You were the one who kept poking at the sighting! I was gonna write it off as a weird gull!”
Tina is a marvelous person to go birding with. And to date she has not slipped arsenic in my food. But I think that might have been a near thing.
That, however, was not the last of our birding adventures.
We were in Skagway, and Tina had gotten word from a local about a bird spot. Off we went to the local airstrip, which had wide gravel strips by the roadside, and in those gravel strips were dozens of Arctic terns.
They were nesting. Baby terns wandered around, being fluffier than a thing made of fluff, occasionally gaping their mouths open to indicate that they were going to starve sometime in the next five seconds if a fish was not stuffed in there immediately.
We stood across the street and stared through our binoculars and made cooing noises and then the parents decided we were too close and began screaming and dive-bombing us.
Now an Arctic tern is not a large tern, somewhat smaller than a crow, but twenty or thirty of them…well, it was not quite The Birds but it was starting to creep up on it. They made loud Chrrk-chhrk-chrrk! noises as they bombed us. We, being birders, said things like “Look how close they are!” and “What good looks we’re getting!” and “Maybe we should back away so they don’t get stressed—” and then one tried to take off Tina’s hat.
Interestingly enough, there is no ready-made response in my brain for “Pardon, an Arctic tern is trying to grab your hat.” I mean, it’s never come up.
So I went “Wuh—uh—um—” and pointed. Tina looked up from her attempts to get photos of the chicks with the long-distance zoom lens and the tern veered off, chrrk!ing irritably. We, too, veered off, as they were clearly rather annoyed and you shouldn’t stress birds if you can help it.
We learned later from a shuttle driver that the terns are notorious hat thieves and that the locals know exactly where the nests are and find it very amusing when passers-by get mobbed. (And also protective of their terns—that’s a small colony, very exposed, but they’ve been breeding there for years and are left unmolested. And the locals are quite fond of their little attack birds. And sometimes lock their friends out of the car there just to watch them get mobbed, because this is Alaska, after all.)
So that was also pretty darn cool.